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The Nation | Ronald Brownstein / WASHINGTON OUTLOOK

Clinton's Pact With Centrist Council Offers Risk and Reward

August 01, 2005|Ronald Brownstein

The new alliance between Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and the Democratic Leadership Council is at once logical and risky. It's logical because it serves key interests of both partners. It's risky because it probably overestimates the extent to which their interests converge.

Clinton linked arms with the DLC last week when she agreed to direct the group's one-year project to define a new Democratic message and agenda. Clinton has participated in DLC events before, but never so prominently.

It's easy to identify benefits for each side. While her husband was president, Hillary Clinton was often seen as a champion of the Democratic left. But since her Senate campaign in 2000, she's mostly aimed for the center.

The DLC post could help anchor her there. Since the group was formed in 1985, it's pretty much held the franchise for Democratic moderation. If Clinton runs for president in 2008, the DLC's stamp of approval will make it tougher for any Democratic rival to portray her as an unelectable leftist. "Getting that DLC moniker around her name is very beneficial," says a Democratic operative involved with another potential 2008 contender.

While the DLC offers Clinton credentials, she offers the group credibility. The council's influence crested while Bill Clinton, its former chairman, held the White House. But since his departure, it has struggled to find a productive role. Liberal activists routinely deride the DLC formula of moderate "third-way" policies aimed at swing voters as irrelevant to an era of intense political polarization.

In that environment, allying with Hillary Clinton, the early frontrunner for the 2008 Democratic nomination, allows the DLC to affirm its relevance today and plant seeds for tomorrow. Clinton's name on the cover ensures a bigger audience for its project to shape the party's direction.

The problem is that Clinton and the DLC may find their directions subtly diverging as the project unfolds.

From the start, the council has reveled in intra-party combat and the Sister Souljah moment; it has always believed that to claim the center, Democrats must confront the left. Indeed, before Al From, the group's founder, offered Bill Clinton the DLC chairmanship in 1990, he expressly asked Clinton to demonstrate his "willingness to play political hardball," according to an internal memo From sent to Clinton and quoted by Kenneth S. Baer in his history of the DLC, "Reinventing Democrats."

In the 1980s, the DLC banged heads most often with organized labor and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, then a leading voice among liberals. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, it has tussled mostly with the antiwar left, which it argues is undermining the party's credibility on national security.

Pulling punches has never been the DLC style. "The left's unease with patriotism is rooted in a 1960s narrative of American arrogance and abuse of power," Will Marshall, president of the group's Progressive Policy Institute, wrote last month. "The excesses of protest politics still haunt liberalism today and complicate Democratic efforts to develop a coherent stance toward American power."

But Hillary Clinton understandably isn't interested in picking fights with any party faction. "She's not going to do it," one Democratic strategist close to her said flatly. Clinton made that clear in her speech to the DLC last week, when she called for a truce between the group and its liberal critics.

Council officials say they recognize Clinton can't employ their confrontational style. The tension is more likely to come over substance. As From put it last week, the DLC wants an agenda with "edge" and "sharp ideas" -- bold centrist proposals that cause voters to rethink stereotypes about the party. The sharper the edges, though, the greater the likelihood of provoking the left. Ideas like the DLC's recent call for guaranteeing military recruiters access to college campuses are certainly edgy -- but also a stick in the eye toward liberals.

On most issues, From says, Clinton and the DLC share common positions. But there are disagreements that will complicate the drafting of a manifesto. Clinton recently voted against the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which the group backed. She hasn't taken a position on the recruiting idea, either.

More difficult than outright disagreements will be the systemic divergence of interest between an activist group and a practicing politician. Across the range of issues, Clinton has more need than the DLC to find ideas that minimize fraternal conflict, even if that dulls their edge. It's hard to imagine Clinton putting her name on a report that urges the restructuring of Social Security and Medicare, as DLC studies did in the late 1990s.

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